I don’t usually editorialize on sites like this...but today I’m making an exception.
The smart fortwo is dying, at least in the US. Sales are not recovering, even as other car makers begin posting some pretty encouraging numbers...but the perception (maybe a wrong perception, but a widely held one nonetheless) is that Penske and Daimler are doing little to reverse this. Putting one’s hope in a car demo caravan going from town to town around the country is an exercise in futility. It looks (perception again) like the focus is simply on spending as little money as possible. I understand that every business, particularly those under financial stress, need to control expense...but at what cost? This car (at least the fortwo version) cannot survive here by selling only to us crazies who always wanted one. The problem is, anyone who fell in love with the idea of this car has already bought one. Now what? To survive (let alone prosper), the company has to begin appealing to the general population of buyers considering sub-compacts. smart ain’t doing that. Kevin Costner was wrong. Just because you build it does not necessarily mean they will come.
An all-electric version will help. Please get it here soon. smart can easily benefit from all the media noise about the Nissan Leaf and the swarm of similar cars to follow that is legitimizing all-electric operation in the public’s eyes.
As for the existing gasoline version, which I assume remains in the company’s plans, I am no marketing specialist, but I see what I see. Here are two commonly heard criticisms that I believe are not effectively being addressed.
- The tranny scares people. Hell, it scares me sometimes, and I love the car. I personally think its a great idea that has not been particularly well executed in the fortwo. The buyers this car will have to appeal to are not, by-and-large, performance drivers. They don’t want to have to think that far ahead... "Let’s see. Should I slip over to manual and downshift now so that when I see that truck heading toward me in the intersection, I won’t have to wait for the transmission to dither around deciding what to do?" There is a remedy available right now. A dual clutch transmission. A DCT can be integrated into the fortwo’s design economically. The new Ford Fiesta has one, and it hasn’t exactly bloated that car’s price.
- Fuel economy. You have no doubt noticed that we spend a lot of time defending the car’s mileage numbers. Why? Because the medium is the message, and people often expect to hear something more impressive. The car’s “extreme” size (not always seen as a positive in the eyes of most US car buyers, but that’s OK) implies other extremes people might like a lot...such as...incredible fuel economy. But the critics are right. One might reasonably expect a car weighing less than 1900 lbs, with a three-cylinder engine, to generate more impressive numbers than it does. Yes, I know about what dedicated hypermilers are able to do with the fortwo, but smart knows you can’t sell the car based on that. Other sub-compact and even bigger cars are getting mileage virtually as good while carrying around bigger bodies and more weight. I can’t believe that Daimler (or Mitsubishi or whoever engine supply is outsourced to) cannot keep up competitively with power plant engineering.
I think there is a particular burden on Daimler and Penske to take the steps necessary to save this car. Either that, or just announce that it was a mistake and pull the plug. But do something. If the internal business culture is getting in the way, change it. Easier said than done, I know, but maybe still necessary. Looked what happened to GM when they did not or could not muster the will to change the company’s culture of arrogance and slowness of response.
You want to see what’s possible? Look at Hyundai. Yes, they market well, but the real key to their phenomenal success is their culture of fast, accurate corporate response to changing market demand.
smart....please do what needs to be done......